The happiness formula

What’s the purpose of a nation or a government?

Judging from U.S. (corporate-controlled) news, you might well believe government’s main responsibility is maximizing GNP, Gross National Product, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). But GNP is a horrible proxy for what we should really focus on: some measure of aggregate happiness. GNP has not one but two fatal flaws: 1) it doesn’t measure how much money the average citizen has, esp. in America, where “In 2007, the top 1 percent of tax returns… earned 22.8 percent of adjusted gross income”; and, 2) money has a very weak relationship with happiness. DJIA is an even worse proxy for happiness because few low- and middle-income Americans have substantial stock portfolios.

I hear you thinking: “Maximize ‘Gross National Happiness’? That’s absurd!”

Well, the nation of Bhutan disagrees:

The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is the only nation that puts happiness at the core of public policy. But its thrust on a “gross national happiness”(GNH) index is not just a warm-and-fuzzy inheritance from Buddhism; it is integral to the nation’s cultural and political security.

Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the phrase GNH in 1972 on the belief that people’s happiness did not depend on the nation’s economic wealth…

GNH indicators — as opposed to more traditional measures like a nation’s gross domestic product based on economic activity — recognizes nine components of happiness: psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance.

It’s all tracked twice a year through a survey of 1,300 people conducted by Zangmo’s agency.

Is maximizing Gross National Happiness a gimmick, or does it actually work?

Well, a 2006 international happiness survey ranked Bhutan an astonishing 8th in the world (out of 178 nations surveyed)! Bhutan trailed only Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland (I bet they’re no longer as happy!), The Bahamas, Finland and Sweden.

GNP and DJIA are horrible things for government to care about. Scientific research into what makes people happy has exploded in recent years, and the findings are clear. David Brooks provides an excellent summary:

Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled….

The daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others. The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, joining a group that meets even just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income. According to another, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.

If you want to find a good place to live, just ask people if they trust their neighbors. Levels of social trust vary enormously, but countries with high social trust have happier people, better health, more efficient government, more economic growth, and less fear of crime (regardless of whether actual crime rates are increasing or decreasing)….

Most people vastly overestimate the extent to which more money would improve our lives.

Posted by James on Tuesday, March 30, 2010